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In the "Circle of Life" that is the run of a Broadway musical, "The Lion King" has had a record-smashing extended run.
For younger theatergoers, perhaps the best way to describe the phenomenon of the Disney musical's popularity is that the show was the "Hamilton" of 1998.
Many "Lion King" performers have gone on to perform in "Hamilton." Both shows offer a groundbreaking multicultural vision, and in the process have created roles and careers for African-American performers.
For Garth Fagan, 76, who won a Tony award for "The Lion King's" choreography, watching the show still delivers magic. In Detroit last month, Fagan says he was reduced to tears, once again, watching "The Lioness Hunt."
It's a scene that encapsulates director Julie Taymor's original vision, featuring female performers in silk costumes and head-topping masks (co-designed with Michael Curry), which don't hide their faces.
"You're always enchanted by the costumes, but I wanted you to be enchanted by the women, too, their strength and their beauty," Fagan says. He choreographed the movement to showcase the kind of woman he envisioned his young daughter, who died in a car accident at age 2, would have become. Proceeds from the musical still help fund his innovative Rochester, N.Y.-based modern-dance company, now 47 years old.
Fagan drew upon seven trips he had made to Africa to create movements for the cast of animals, while also invoking the majesty of African landscapes and sunrises and sunsets.
"Every single one of my colleagues were at the top of their game" when they worked together to create the show, he says. The movements were set on what he termed "some of the best dancers on the planet," adding: "I knew their capabilities."
The show has launched 24 productions around the world since its 1997 Broadway premiere, where it is still playing. "'The Lion King's" worldwide gross exceeds that of any film, Broadway show or other entertainment title in box-office history, according to a marketing release.
Sales aside, the show is still creatively groundbreaking, says Geoff Myers, the tour's resident dance supervisor, due to the originality of Taymor's vision, which drew upon and updated a variety of traditional puppetry techniques.
By setting the performers' masks on top of their heads, the actors and their characters create a dual identity, which is woven through their costumes and choreography. "It invites the audience to use their imagination to fill in the blanks, to experience the animals coming through," Myers says.
Theatergoers can see through the characters to see the actors' emotions, says Nia Holloway, 21, an Atlanta native who plays Nala, the lion princess. "We're real people onstage, we're having vulnerable moments, and it's different every night," she says.
The story is in Holloway's creative DNA. She doesn't remember a time before "Lion King," as she grew up watching the animated movie, which was released the year she was born.
She was 17 when she won what she labels her dream role, finishing her last year of high school on the road while performing eight shows a week. Nightly, she loves performing "Shadowland," a song that feels like an "emotional roller coaster," as Nala's princess warrior soul is revealed.
Myers has been touring with "The Lion King" for 14 years, performing in the ensemble and then becoming a swing, where he covered all the male dancer roles. He performed on Broadway and in the Las Vegas company before he was hired as the tour's resident dance supervisor.
The show delivers impressive dramatic spectacle, and you can see new things each time you see the show, Myers says.
Recently, the dance supervisor was watching a performance from a new vantage point, a seat on the far left side of a theater, where he observed the character of Pumbaa, the warthog. Myers watched how the wig fell forward to cover the actor's face while the character is sleeping.
In that moment, the actor disappeared, and Myers found himself observing a warthog onstage. "I've seen the show hundreds of times, and I've performed in it thousands of times, and I'd never seen that," he says.
'Circle of Life'
The Broadway touring show of the blockbuster "Lion King" returns to Salt Lake City for a four-week run. The score, by Elton John and Tim Rice, includes the Academy Award-winning "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." The musical's book was adapted by Roger Allers, who co-directed the animated film, and Irene Mecchi, who co-wrote the screenplay.
Where • Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main St., Salt Lake City
When • Thursday to April 16
Times • Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. Saturday matinees; Sunday, 1 and 6:30 p.m.
Additional matinees • Thursday, March 30, 2 p.m.; Friday, April 14, 2 p.m.
Also • Open caption performance 2 p.m. Saturday, April 1, 2 p.m.; American Sign Language performance Saturday, April 8, 2 p.m.
Tickets • $35-$185 (plus fees), at theater box office, 801-355-2787, arttix.org or broadway-at-the-eccles.com
Running time • 2 hours and 30 minutes (including 20-minute intermission)